But did you know that this understanding is a very modern one, confined really to the globally-minded cultures of the 20th and 21st centuries? The original readers of this account (the people to whom it was first communicated) would certainly not have applied it to the entire planet, nor did people throughout the ensuing millennia. Indeed, the view that the flood of Noah's day covered the whole planet, and that it can be used to explain the fossil record and Earth's geology only arose in the late 19th century and only became popular among Christians beginning in the 1960's.
Of course, imposing our modern way of thinking upon Scripture written thousands of years ago is one of the big no-nos of hermeneutics (of rightly interpreting the Bible). For example, when moderns accuse one or more of the gospel writers of misquoting Jesus (because, say, Matthew and Luke do not agree word-for-word when recording the same teaching incident), it is wrongly imposing our standards for quoting someone (which involves word-for-word accuracy) upon a culture with a different standard (for Jews of Jesus' day what mattered was that one accurately record someone's thought or intent). In the same way, imposing our 21st-century, global perspective on the flood account of Genesis ensures that our conclusions will be wrong.
In coming posts, I want to reexamine the flood account theologically, logically, and scientifically, and will seek to show that a global understanding fares poorly with each of these assessment methods. But for today, let's examine together the words themselves to see whether they require believing that the flood encompassed the whole planet.
Superficially--and in English--the flood account seems to encompass everything. We read, for example, that God said "I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven" (Gen. 6:17). We find that "the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered" (7:19), and that "all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind" (7:21).
Surely, say proponents of a global understanding of the flood, such all-encompassing language must mean that the context is the entire planet. But this shallow (albeit widespread) interpretation does not really do justice to the text itself or to a serious attempt at good hermeneutics. And the first clue that this is the case comes immediately following the flood, and in the same account. In Genesis 8:13 and 14, we read that after the flood "the waters were dried from off the earth," "the face of the ground was dry," and "the earth had dried out." If we take "the earth" that was flooded as referring to the entire planet, then we must also take these latter verses as indicating that the entire planet was subsequently dry.
So the context and scope of the flood is the real issue here. And indeed, accurately determining the context is arguably the first and most important step to rightly interpreting any Scripture passage. I expect to show--by examining other Old Testament passages that use similar language--that the context of Genesis 6-8 is more local than the entire planet, referring only to the rather limited portion of the earth that was inhabited by humans (the large Mesopotamian plain).
But first, a word about translation issues. Hebrew is a very small language, and nouns (especially) are required to serve much broader purposes than do the nouns of English. The Hebrew phrase kol erets, translated "whole earth" or "entire earth," is used 205 times in the Old Testament. The vast majority of these usages (some of which we will examine more closely) refer to a local region, and not the whole planet. In the same way, kol shamayim ("entire heavens") most often serves as reference to a limited region. The Hebrew phrase translated "high mountains" actually can refer to any elevated landscape. Conversely, the various Hebrew words translated "every creeping thing" and "all flesh" are much more specific than the English translations, referring to particular groups of terrestrial mammals and birds. These translational problems have certainly contributed to the modern misunderstanding of the flood account.
But in order to demonstrate the the "whole earth" of Genesis 6-8 does not require a global context, let's look at this same phrase in other Old Testament contexts. In I Kings 10:24, we are told that
The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom that God had put in his heart.No one (ancient or modern) interprets this verse as saying that representatives from South America came to see Solomon. Instead, we rightly understand the context as the nations surrounding Solomon's Israel. Perhaps more relevant--since a part of the same book of the Bible as the flood account--is Genesis 41:56. It talks about the time when Joseph was second-in-command in Egypt, and people from surrounding lands were coming to buy food that he had stored up:
The famine was over all the face of the earth.Again, no one understands this passage as teaching that there was a famine that extended all the way to New Zealand, Alaska, and South America. We naturally--and rightly--recognize the context of this famine passage as the Middle East, not the entire planet. And yet the phrase at issue, kol erets, is exactly the same one that in the flood account causes many to leap to the conclusion that the whole planet is in view. Now this next one comes only three chapters after the conclusion of the flood account. In the account about the tower of Babel, the text reads
the whole world [kol erets] had one language and one common speech.In this case, we have no doubt that the context is a limited region; the point of the story is that humanity still occupied a very small geographic area, and God didn't like this.
As with God's judgment at Babel, His judgment in the flood was aimed at human disobedience, and in both cases part of that disobedience was man's failure to multiply and "fill the earth." The Creator gave this command to Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:28), then again to Noah (Gen. 9:7), and then again at Babel; in the latter case He also acted to ensure that people finally dispersed from the Mesopotamian plain.
In short, there is no scriptural, historical, or scientific evidence for humanity's spreading out from the Middle East until a time better understood as after the flood judgment described in Genesis 6-8. The belief that the context of that account is global is a modern and inacurrate one, and one which provides (to modern skeptics of Christianity) an artificial barrier to seriously considering the claims of the Bible, including its central claim of salvation in Christ.